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“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” – President John F. Kennedy

This past weekend, I took my family to Houston to visit the Johnson Space Center.  The famous “Houston, we have a problem” place.  It was a great visit and I think a great place to take children to see where their dreams can take them…if they are willing to commit to them.  This is the place that figured out how to build a rocket powerful enough to escape the Earth’s atmosphere and yet safe enough to put humans inside of it.  This is the place that figured out how take the next step from essentially disposable space capsules (the Apollo missions) to reusable space capsules (the Shuttle) and now they are at the forefront of working with private enterprise to make a manned mission to Mars a reality. 

As you walk into the Johnson Space Center (the de-classified side of NASA), a phrase awaits you to the effect of “It’s the natural human condition to be curious and explore.” 

If you think about Innovation at NASA, you might think: “Impossible!  How can a government agency filled with red-tape and bureaucracy champion innovation?”  And to a certain extent, your sentiment is completely justified.  There is a high amount of oversight and governance working for a government agency.  Not everything is easy.  But, just as President Kennedy challenged his government agencies to innovate in spite of this environment, so too are we often challenged to do the same.  

So, why do some companies innovate and others lag behind?  I believe the simple truth is perspective. 

Innovation isn’t always about cutting-edge breakthroughs or game-changing technologies either. In fact, simple shifts in business strategy or outlook can be every bit as powerful as new technology and groundbreaking discoveries. But more importantly, as research shows, innovation can be simply a matter of perspective—and process of constant reinvention. And organizations of every size and background have the ability to leverage its core principles to succeed more frequently going forward.   SOURCE:  “A New Approach to Innovation”, Scott Steinberg, 3/12/2015, Association for Talent Development

Mr. Steinberg goes on to mention Booz & Company’s annual review of the world’s top innovators (companies like Google, Amazon and Samsung) – where Booz’s analysts deep dive into the state of innovation at these companies to try and understand why some companies are more innovative than others.  Above all things, their analysis shows it’s the environment that dictates the strength of a company’s innovation. 

The companies that innovate the most, disrupt markets, put products in our hands we didn’t even know we needed are no different in capitalization, number of employees or seasoned leadership.  The difference is that the leadership at top innovative companies choose to provide their employees with, as Steinberg wrote: “better platforms for brainstorming, sharing, and experimenting with new ideas. In plainer terms, they give their people more chances to speak up, share their insights and take action when new opportunities or challenges present themselves.” 

Moreover, the source of their innovation isn’t found in their multi-million dollar campuses…it is found out in the street.  They reach out to their customers, their suppliers, their vendors.  They listen and they learn. 

Look around your company.  Look at the people.  Look at the leaders.  How are they structured?  How do you ideate?  Meaning, how do cultivate new ideas?  How do you allow new ideas to ruminate and incubate to become big game changing disruptive ideas that are going to take your company to a place it’s never been?  Who was the last project manager of your last innovation project?  When it failed…what happened to them?  Are they still with the company?  Or, did you let them go and cut your losses?  Are their inside company jokes about that person?  Are they now effigies of the kind of projects not to get assigned to?  “Oh don’t do that project, you’ll become another John Smith!” 

In your company, you are likely not figuring out how to put a man on the moon.  You might simply be trying to make your customers happy.  So, your innovation strategy should be much more straight-forward even though achieving your objectives might feel as daunting as manned space flight to Mars.

Just remember, ideas come from harnessing the natural condition of curiosity out of your employees.  New products, new services, new methods for delivery all come from releasing your employees from fear of failure and allowing them to exchange ideas and think outside the box. 

If the state of innovation looks poor in your company, I challenge you to review your innovation goals and “get real” about how dedicated you are to meeting them.  How committed are you to creating environments conducive to innovation?  How are you going to foster idea sharing and collaboration?  How are you going to handle failure?  What are you willing to do to staff innovation with top talent?  What kind of innovation leadership are you willing to invest in?  Do you view innovation as a short-term project or a long-term journey? 

We can’t answer these questions for you, but what our research shows is that your answers very much dictate the success or failure of your innovation initiatives.  It all starts with the environment.  Are you ready to innovate?  

Jonathan Goldstein
McKinney, TX